Learning As They Go: A Look At Changes To The School System
Forty-two third graders failed at least one exam at P.S. 40 in South Jamaica. Tribune photo by Azi Paybarah
By Azi Paybarah
The turbulent school year, full of change and controversy, came to end this week, marking the completion of the new system’s first term.
From crime to the curriculum to the chain of command, New York City’s school system underwent its most dramatic changes in recent history, when Mayor Mike Bloomberg took control of the system and turned it upside down.
This week, looking back at the changes that were made, many of his initiatives were deemed successes, including his anti-crime program, while many were criticized, such as a third grade promotion policy.
While the Mayor looks back to evaluate how he did, the rest of the city is looking to the future, where more change still lies ahead.
Crime In The Classroom
This week, Bloomberg released crime statistics for the 16 city schools with the highest incidents of crime – schools that were targeted earlier this year in a new anti-crime initiative launched by the Mayor and the Department of Education (DOE).
Citywide, 13 percent of major school crimes were committed in schools representing one percent of the city’s school children. Among those schools were Far Rockaway High School and Franklin K. Lane on the Brooklyn-Queens border in Woodhaven. In January, Bloomberg named them Impact Schools, and working with the New York City Police Department (NYPD), had them flooded with police officers.
Major crimes, which occurred on average every day at schools like Lane, were cut in half, according to statistics released by Bloomberg and the DOE. Four additional schools outside Queens were designated impact schools in April, and results there were just as dramatic.
Crimes there dropped by 66 percent, compared to earlier that year.
According to a public statement from the DOE, “School personnel focused on responding to even the most minor infractions of the New York City Discipline Code.” That led to a spike in the number of suspensions at both sets of Impact schools. In the first 12 weeks, principals suspended twice as many students, compared to earlier that year. At the second set of Impact schools, suspensions rose 63 percent. Ultimately, the new policy led to the removal of 494 students to “alternative school settings or off-site suspension centers.”
In explaining the philosophy behind the Impact Schools, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said it is “the same approach we used to address crime in our neighborhoods.”
Whether it’s a teacher, school aide or police officer, “everyone is speaking with one voice,” said Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt.
“If students are afraid to go to school,” said Bloomberg in a public statement, “they simply cannot learn.”
Upgrades to school policies also helped. At Lane, for example, the handwritten hallway passes were replaced with a color-coded system that includes the teacher’s name.
Social Promotion Over
One of the most discussed changes to the school system was Bloomberg’s new promotion policy, which forces third grade children to pass both the citywide math and reading tests to move on to fourth grade.
The new standard was meant to combat so-called social promotion policy, which pushed failing students into higher grades.
To enact the policy, Bloomberg fired three members of the Panel for Educational Policy who opposed the measure.
“Mayoral appointees are there to represent the mayor’s view,” said mayoral spokesperson Chris Coffey. “If they don’t have the stomach to do that they didn’t have to stay. Mayoral control means mayoral control.” The policy passed eight to five with two non-voting student members opposing the policy.
Test administrators got failing marks after a series of snafus.
Students in District 29 and elsewhere studied by reviewing old exams, inadvertently exposing them to questions recycled on this year’s exam. Talk swirled of retesting those students, but DOE officials settled on scoring the original exam, minus those questions. Chairperson Jane Hirschmann of Parents Coalition To End High Stakes Testing said the whole test should be thrown out. She obtained a manual from the two companies who prepared the test, which said, “The tests favors white children by 11 questions…[and] no questions favor Hispanic and black children.”
Students who were absent for the reading exam were not given the same test for their makeup because Hirschmann released some questions to the media during a press conference. Third graders opened the newly created exams and discovered answer options that did not correspond to those in their test booklets.
When results of those exams were released, more than 10,000 third graders citywide failed, including 1,796 in Queens. When the policy was first announced, DOE officials estimated 15,000 might fail.
Two of the city’s top three school districts were in Queens. In School District (SD) 26, only 14 students failed. SD 25 came in third with 78 students failing at least one of the exams.
Thirteen elementary schools in SD 26 had a 100 percent passing rate for their third graders. The borough’s worst performing school was South Jamaica’s P.S. 40, where 42 third graders failed at least one exam.
“Poor performance” was the reason given for removing 45 principals this year, according to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Sixteen of the deposed principals were tenured, and two of them are “being formally charged with incompetence,” according to a public statement from Klein’s office.
Schools in Queens where principals were reportedly removed include Franklin K. Lane, Far Rockaway, Beach Channel, and Springfield Gardens High Schools; P.S./I.S. 499, J.H.S. 190, and P.S. 111. President Jill Levy of the principals union said the DOE “was not able to provide the support and skill development these principals needed in order to succeed.”
Removed earlier this year was Superintendent Diana Lam, who resigned after a special DOE investigator discovered Lam forced school officials to give her husband a $100,000 a year job.
Replacing each of the city’s 32 school boards will be Community Education Councils (CEC), whose members were elected earlier this year. Each CEC will have nine elected parent representatives, and two members appointed by the borough president. Two citywide CECs will be established for special education and high schools. The CEC for Special education will have nine elected parent members, and two members appointed by the Public Advocate.
The main difference between School Boards (SB) and CECs are their eligibility requirements.
School board members were voted in by the public, had to live in the district, but their children did not have to attend district public schools.
“At one point I was the only one on the board who had their kids in public school,” said SB30 member Jeannie Basini.
CEC members are voted in by the executive members of each school’s Parent Association or Parent Teacher Association, and have to have a child in a district public school.
Although unclear in their roles, CECs are expected to operate similarly to School Boards, sources said.
One major procedural change was the high school application process. Students are no longer guaranteed a seat in their zoned schools, meaning each incoming ninth grader has to apply to the school of their choice. Since no seat is guaranteed, even in their nearest school, some students have been forced into schools across town. Adding to the influx of applications are the new federal standards of the No Child Left Behind Law, which allows students in failing schools to request seats in better performing ones.